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General Assembly Reflections

This text is written by me, Dennis. It’s been three days since the General Assembly, which felt like an important conversation, but a frustrating exercise in decision-making. I want to say a few words about what was difficult for me.

Like last year, the conversation unfolded in a chaotic way. Unlike last year, we did not manage to take any serious decisions. About 27 people (23 of which were members of the association) filled out a survey before the assembly. The responses underline the difficulties of trying to organize things horizontally with a group of people with varying degrees of involvement.

When it comes to sustainable consumption, practically everyone believes this should be an aim of the Foundry, but not everyone is interested in working in the garden or paying more for food. And while 80% of respondents believe we should have a budget for programming and contract more professional construction workers, a majority is against raising the price or applying for grants (and yes, there are other ways of making money, but we have to be realistic about how much they can generate and make sure the Foundry does not become a business). I believe these are contradictions, and I wonder if they can be resolved.

In one of his films (I forgot which one), Adam Curtis points out that the problem for democracy in a capitalist society is that individual desires tend to replace collective action. Perhaps this is something to think about. But perhaps the problem at the Foundry is much simpler. It seems to me there are a few ways of doing things ‘horizontally’ or ‘democractically,’ and some of the friction at the assembly derives from a failure to think through what horizontal decision-making means. One possibility is to take all decisions together – I believe this will bog down any decent-sized project in endless Zoom calls and email chains and eventually lead to risk-avoidance. Another is embodied by the first principle listed on our website (and copied from PAF): The doer decides.

As someone with an anarchist sensibility, I believe in consensus. I don’t think anyone should decide for anyone else. This is why I tend not to participate in decision-making at the Foundry when I am not actually there (unless it involves larger construction projects or decisions that affect me). I trust the people taking care of the space when I am not around, and am happy to delegate. Trust takes time to build, so naturally people that have shown a long-term engagement with the project have more decision-making power than someone who just arrived. The power to decide what happens with and in the space comes with the responsibility to take care of the space. I sometimes wonder if everyone who wants to be involved in taking decisions is ready to invest energy into realizing them and take responsibility for their possible consequences?

Ideally power is also a burden, and therefore tends to undermine itself. Sadly, this self-undermining is not always a smooth process. As everyone who has spent a lot of time at the Foundry (or any similar project) knows, self-organization can wear you out. An old village with a lot of garden and construction work and an ever-changing population inevitably generates chaos, and maintaining a semblance of order in that chaos is no easy task. Not a month goes by without some unexpected situation to deal with, and not a year goes by without someone disconnecting or burning out. I also get stressed and overwhelmed sometimes, and my capacity for empathic communication suffers. There is no easy answer to this. Self-organized collective spaces require a different habitus than the private space of home or the public spaces of state and capital. It takes time to cultivate a sense of responsibility and care for our surroundings, and if this sense is not carried by most of the residents, the weight falls on a few shoulders for which we should be very grateful.

But back to the complexities of decision-making. If I were to derive a ‘mandate’ from the responses to the survey and the discussion at the assembly, I believe it would be unworkable (unless we start printing money). Fortunately, a survey is not a mandate. I listen to what people want, and everyone can always approach me (or any of the other long-term residents) with questions, opinions and initiatives. When it comes to initiatives I will try to be supportive, and I am happy to delegate decisions to the people that invest their energy into realizing them. But as the person who invested more time, energy and money into this project than anyone, and as the only one who cannot simply walk away without huge losses, I also take the freedom to decide certain things by myself: I keep away most of the media, start collaborations, contract insurances (sadly too late for the flood two days ago), organize events, occasionally invite a resident, and choose which larger construction works have priority. I talk about these matters with people in the house or in the relevant whatsapp group, but as long as there are no decisions that could impact other’s lives negatively (beyond the occasional annoyance of living in a communal space where projects and events happen), I don’t feel the need to take these decisions collectively. We need doers, and having to discuss everything with everyone stunts initiative.

Of course, the most complex decisions are those that involve structural changes that affect the people using the space: how much does a room cost, how many volunteers do we take in, what are the conditions of being a volunteer, what is the maximum length of time one can stay, etc. I think these decisions should be well-informed by data and experience, and in the end they are the ones the general assembly should focus on, perhaps with the support of working groups that crunch numbers and propose proposals.

I have not always practiced these views on decision-making in a reflected manner, but as the project matures, I would propagate something like this – and I think the groups we set up after the assembly go in this direction. But I’m also sure some opacity and friction will always be with us. The boundaries between the different types of decision (internal decisions, ‘the doer decides’ decisions and larger structural decisions that affect everyone) and the different level of consensus required are not always clear and subject to constant renegotiation. For me, this is part of doing things in a ‘democratic’ manner, and even this decentralized format takes plenty of time and energy from everyone, me included. I also get confused about my role sometimes; some people want me to show more leadership, others less, and others question what leadership should look like in a project like this. I don’t really have an answer to that question. In the meantime I try to communicate openly and clearly (and yes, I can be blunt), and I hope people trust that I am doing the best I can without overextending myself.

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